Wednesday 29 May 2024

Waltzing Matilda by Kate Durrant, decaffeinated coffee

 Emily Dickinson got it wrong.
The loved do die and love is not immortal, although Ill grant her Parting is .... all we need of hell.' Its messy and inconvenient and, frankly, heart breaking because when one heart stops, another one shatters.
But at least they havent taken him away.
Hes still mine in the deathly, quiet house while I wait for the serious suited undertakers to arrive. I told them not to hurry.

It was inevitable that we would find ourselves here.
Me breathing, him not.
The illness that has been stealthily claiming him, day by day, memory by memory, has finally come back for his body.
Each day eroding all that he was as he reached the summit of his life and slowly made his descent, scattering pieces of himself on the cold, unforgiving mountain of lucidity. Discarding not only his own memories as he stumbled down but my memories of him also.
Each day shrinking as his voice rattled weakly around in the skeleton that wore its skin like an older brothers hand-me-down overcoat as he visibly contracted under the weight of a life lived too long.
'From hero to zero,' he wheezed quietly one day as he teetered precariously on the edge of the bed he could no longer get into unaided, before swallowing the plethora of tablets that did nothing but make ME feel better.
I pretended not to hear as I busied myself trying to clothe his dusty, disintegrating, sock resisting foot which was the latest appendage to refuse to cooperate and do the job it was made for.
I can do anything, but not honesty.

We are alone now.
I thought they would never go, these well meaning people who answered our call in the lonely small hours with speed and kindness, and I needed them to go, needed to have him to myself. They allowed themselves to be ushered down the picture-lined hall with my words of thanks. Unable to look at the black and white frozen images of our former selves with our rictus grins and self conscious poses enjoying high days and holidays.
They left wearily, resigned to my refusals of help that would have allowed them to mentally discharge me and hand me over to someone, anyone, as I closed the door on them and the breaking dawn of my new life.

Im tired and cold, jangling from too little sleep and too much caffeine.
Too much loss.
Alive with nerves and adrenaline and determination I take a breath and reluctantly push open the creaking kitchen door, ashamed of my fear of the loose limbed body that I am somewhat surprised to find still on the cold hard floor where life left him as if asleep.
And hes been sleeping for a long time now.
Not falling into sleep, but more being claimed by it, his waking merely stolen moments from the sleep that nearly owned him.
'Nearly never was,' my long dead father used to say.
It is now,' I answer him sadly.

I stare in awe at his stillness, at his unlined face at peace with all former transgressions.
There is no priest coming.
No sins remembered and none to forgive.
Not wishing to disturb him I tiptoe around his body and take a cushion from the easy chair in the sunroom that bears his imprint. Gently lifting his head, I surrender it back into the downy softness, reaching out with my other hand to take the good blanket from the back of the couch. The one that always had its label showing outwards and was NOT TO BE USED, before gently draping it over the still body that I knelt beside.

Despite, or maybe because, of all that is dead in my world I have never felt more alive as the engine of his empty body cools and his heat flows into my cold bones warming me in death as he did in life.
His big toe, with its brittle nail betraying him with the yellow of age and decay, peaks out from underneath the blanket and as I reverently hide it away I catch a glimpse of his translucent leg, muscles atrophied, deprived for so long of life and sun. Wearing the tubed pouch that did the job his bladder had long forgotten how to, insultingly still filling with his urine.
The last defiant act of his dead body.
This little piggy went to Heaven,I thought gently tickling his now hidden toe, as I stretched out my other arm for his phone, discarded under the chair where it had fallen from his dressing gown pocket as we moved him earlier. His body flopping like a puppet unbound from the tangled strings of life as we, without success, tried to reattach him.

He loved that phone.
Loved indiscriminately pressing its buttons. Hated its refusal to talk to him.
No new messages.
No saved messages.
Something wrong with this, 'he would mutter, stabbing his finger in the general direction of the numbers.
Well look at it tomorrow,’   I would say as I gently prised it out of his hands and plugged it in for a superfluous charge.
There are few places as lonely as the call register of someone who lives in the poorer, sicker, worser side of life.
My own phone is missing, lost in the earlier panic, in that time when hope was present, and as I toss his phone gently from hand to hand I know that I will have to use it soon to tell the news. The only person that matters, the only one I want to tell, is here.
Dead on the floor.
Getting colder and more distant by the minute as that which loaned him to me now reclaims him.

Soon he will belong to many.
Those from his past, and those who wished him to be in their future.

The siblings, distanced by life, but sad all the same at the loss of someone they once fought with and for.
The cousins remembering childhood adventures.
The unborn grandchildren.

The children wishing they had done more not realising until it was too late that, well, it was too late.
So little to be shared between so many before the rituals of death claim him and he is returned to me in an impossibly small box.

He had cushioned my last loss as we buried my father together.
His arms around me, the kettle on a rolling boil, as he filled the cavernous gap left my by father's love with meatballs in his special sauce and flambeed bananas.
And it worked.
Those fiery bananas and lovingly rolled balls of mince and breadcrumbs softened the ragged edges of my loss, the last beautiful gift from my father as I realised how loved I was.
I look across him at the cold kettle wondering who will boil away the lacerated edges of this loss with tea and complex carbohydrates.
Wondering what I will do with all this love that now has no place to go.
Saliva trickles down his chin as his jaw slowly sags, dislodging the blanket to reveal his skeletal shoulder.
I lean over to tuck it into the warmth catching sight of Alexa.
Alexa,I tentatively ask as I anchor the blanket under his stiffening collarbone, 'What do you do when someone dies?'
Ummm,' says Alexa in her measured tone, completely unruffled by the dead man lying in front of her, It is appropriate to express sympathy, you may wish to say Im sorry for your loss...'

I stop her before she goes any further, cutting across the banalities that I know I will hear far too often over the coming days of tepid tea and well meant sandwiches, and ask her instead for our favourite song.

Unoffended she stops talking mid sentence and the strains of Waltzing Matilda start to gently dance their way around the room and I gaze at your slack jaw and wonder if you are now free to waltz your Matilda all over.
Your theme tune.

The lyrics a time machine to raucous sing songs in tapas bars after long beach days, and small underground taverns in cold Eastern European cities with unsmiling, gutteral audiences who nevertheless slid unpalatable drinks down the bar to you in thanks.
How prophetic it proved and how fast we found out that when your mind wanders so too do your supporting cast.

There were indeed few left to to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.
But before then, before they left, we had sang and drank and loved and laughed and lived. We had waltzed, and we had waltzed again.
Before we realised that, truly, there were worse things than dying.

The ache in my back breaks my reverie and I push my cold, stiffening body up from the floor and put the kettle on, opening the dishwasher door as I reach in to take out two mugs.
My mug.
His mug.

His still warm from the heat of the dishwasher, a gift that I allow myself to imagine is the warmth of his hands.
I automatically spoon a teaspoon and a half of coffee in his mug and the same amount of sugar, gently folding in the milk before splashing the boiled water on the muddy mess at the bottom of the mug.

A lifetime of coffee making.
A lifetime of pouring love on the muddy mess of life and making something beautiful. Is over.

The dogs stir, their ears pricking as they recognise before I the gravitas of the car that pulls up outside.

I stand as still as Lots wife, my body turning into salty tears as his returns to dust, as the world knocks quietly but firmly at the door waiting to come in and scoop my future off the cold kitchen floor.
Leaving me only a mug full of cooling coffee and the best blanket now faintly wearing the acetone tang of his decaying body.

I kneel awkwardly beside him and press my wet cheek gently to his as I did when I put him to bed last night, THE last night, as we performed the awkward nightly manoeuver that had replaced our passion with something far more intimate.
Both of us laughing as we stumbled through the nocturnal mis-arrangement of legs and body parts.

Part lift.
Part hug.
Complete love.
Swaddled by the bedding he released me, allowing himself to relax into its safety and comfort as I gently pulled back out of our tangled embrace.
Smiling at his face, THAT face, I busied myself with the covers and asked, as I always did, Did you have a good day?
He turned his head towards me and, giving my question his full attention, looked at me through trusting, guileless eyes answering, as HE always did, I think so,before frowning slightly and looking to me for confirmation as he questioned, Didnt I?
Bending to press my lips to his forehead, I turned off the bedside light as I kissed him for the last time as I answered gently,
You did.
You did. 


About the author 

 An award winning short story writer, Kate’s fiction and poetry has been published in Irish Country Magazine, Irish Examiner, Sunday Independent and numerous anthologies and journals. She regularly contributes her vignettes to RTE Radio One; Pause for Thought BBC Radio Two, and The Irish Farmers Journal. 
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